Striking a contemporary note

SUN JOURNAL

Writer: To have a comment he wrote nearly 40 years ago quoted today puts Harry Golden in a club with H. L. Mencken and Will Rogers.

September 11, 2000|By Theo Lippman Jr. | By Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"I remember in 1964 when Barry Goldwater was nominated, Harry Golden, the great Southern Jewish writer, said, `I always knew the first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian.' Barry Goldwater's grandfather had been Jewish, and he was an Episcopalian" - Mark Shields on The NewsHour on PBS, Aug. 7.

"When Barry Goldwater's Jewish roots were revealed in 1964, Jewish writer Harry Golden joked, `I always knew the first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian'" - Jonathan Kaufman in the Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10.

"Barry Goldwater had a Jewish grandfather, prompting the Jewish humorist Harry Golden to say that he always knew that the first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian" - Syndicated columnist George Will in The Sun, Aug. 10.

And so it went in the wake of Joseph I. Lieberman's being chosen for the Democratic vice presidential nomination.

Surely most Americans have never heard of or not recently thought of Harry Golden. And for any political journalist's nearly four-decades-old comment to still be familiar enough to be quoted verbatim (and correctly) by several journalists is unusual to say the least. It puts Golden in that exclusive club whose other members are probably only H. L. Mencken and Will Rogers.

Before getting to Golden, it is probably also true that a great many of today's followers of current events don't know much about Barry Goldwater. His grandfather, Michel Goldwasser, left Russian Poland in the mid-19th century, settled in California and became known as "Big Mike" Goldwater. A son, Baron, was born there and moved to Arizona to found the family's successful department stores.

Baron married Josephine Williams, an Episcopalian from Illinois. In a state with fewer than 500 Jews at the time, she raised Barry in her church, and he remained Episcopalian. (But, noted the great chronicler of presidential campaigns, Theodore White, "The saga of his pioneering Jewish ancestry adds a tingle to every speech he makes recalling Big Mike and the past. And though he knows neither Hebrew nor Yiddish nor the ritual of the synagogue, his dry Southwestern tonalities still cloak a biblical rhythm of speech and the endless Jewish capacity for righteous indignation.")

Harry Golden's father was born in eastern Galicia about the time the Goldwaters were getting their roots down in America. Harry was born there about the time Barry Goldwater was born in Arizona. The family came to America, where an immigration official mistakenly changed the spelling to Goldhurst. They settled on New York's Lower East Side. In the Roaring '20s, he became a successful stockbroker. Actually, as he put it, his firm was a bucket shop, where clients' trades were often not executed and their money was put "in the bucket."

He was caught and spent four years in federal prison in Atlanta, where he got his first experience with Southerners. When he got out, he changed his name to Golden and became in due course a newspaperman, first in advertising, then in writing, first in New York, then in Norfolk, Va., then in Charlotte, N.C. While selling ads in the Charlotte Observer, he decided to start his own paper. He did so in 1941. He dubbed it the Carolina Israelite, though its editorial philosophy and, eventually, its circulation base were far broader than Carolina and interested in much more than Jewish concerns.

The paper consisted of editorial comment and reminiscences by Golden - reminiscences of his prolific reading as well as of his life growing up in New York. But his goal, he later explained this way: "I started the Carolina Israelite with the intention of recruiting Jews and Gentiles into the movement for civil rights for colored citizens."

In the South of the 1940s and 1950s, that took a lot of courage, and even though Golden tempered his lecturing, some would say hectoring, of white Southerners and their race-related mores with humor, he made some enemies.

He made many friends, too, and in high places. Some began as fans and became personally close: Politicians such as Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey and Jack and Bobby Kennedy, television personalities such as Jack Paar, journalists such as Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore, two Southerners trying to change the South, and probably his closest personal friend of all, the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.

Golden wrote the entire paper each month. His editorials or columns or articles or analyses covered the waterfront of topics. Here is a sample of headlines from pieces that appeared in the 1940s and 1950s (and which became a huge best seller when they and many other such pieces were collected in a book "Only in America," published in 1958):

"Why I never bawl out a waitress"; "Southern Gentlemen"; "2,500 handsome Jewish policemen"; "Movies for adults only"; "How to get a note renewed at the bank"; "Is Greta Garbo an artist?"; "Caesar the humanist"; "Merry Christmas Billy Graham"; "The saloon and the cocktail lounge"; "Rabbi, make it short." And so on.

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